© Copyright 2005
Barbara Jeans, nurse LLC
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There was no way that a “rubber doughnut” as the doctor called it, on the seat of that tiny VW Bug, was going to make this trip any easier. I watched her. The pain was there, the physical stuff. Her face would tighten sharply every now and then, and I could hear her breath hiss when the spasms hit her. But that was nothing, I could see, compared to the utter overwhelming grief. She had Jamie only three days ago, and now we were on the road home to bury her. This woman, this girl, this person I love so hopelessly much was enduring something no man can imagine, and we are almost always all but helpless to relieve. Our first born child died only two days after she was born. She was a kind of glorious gift, and a mysterious creature we had been building dreams around for months. But I didn’t carry her, could not feel her grow inside me, could never imagine the pain of childbirth, or truly know any of the things that a mother’s love is defined by. No matter how bad my heart hurt for her, for Jamie, our baby, and selfishly for me, it was nothing compared to what she was enduring…and she would go through it all again in less than year!
We buried two babies in less than ten months to RDS (Respiratory Distress Syndrome) , and over the years Barbara had, I can’t remember how many miscarriages and other failed pregnancies. I am not sure if my wife’s passion for cooking is defined by the deaths of Jamie and John, or all the other pregnancy problems, but I know I learned a lot about her character, her heart and her soul. She is a gem of the rarest kind. She doesn’t whine or weep about the sometimes cruel fate that could have hardened or crushed her. She always looked forward, forever finding that one thing that would hold us together forever. We have two kids who ‘made it” as we say and they are beyond special. Like most men whose marriage has survived the indomitable adolescence of the male gender, I very much know how lucky I am.
Barbara and I were married on April Fools Day, 1967. It was our choice, amazingly enough. Over the next twenty-two plus years she patiently tolerated the almost crazy shifts of a Marine Corps Officer’s career. She is a dietician by education, but has held more than a few other food related jobs. Professionally, she always gravitated toward something that involved a kitchen. What is unusual though is, unlike so many in the food business, she loves to cook at home. You never really knew what to expect, but with precious few exceptions (she refers to them as “Do you remember that god awful…?”) the kids, our friends and I ate so well I am almost ashamed. Well, not really. Just before I retired, we got into the restaurant business because of a friend, an unbelievable friend, Gene Street, from Dallas, Texas. We were his partners for the next twelve years in the Washington, DC area. In late 1997, we moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia to retire. For reasons too strange and tangled to explain, the idea for Barbara Jean’s began to form.
Barbara Jean’s opened on St. Simons in early 1998. It was “Easy Southern Dining” as seen through the creative eyes of a nice German-Irish girl from Brooklyn, New York. What will surprise most people who frequent Barbara Jean’s is that none of the three signature items, She Crab Soup, The Chocolate Stuff, or the Crab Cakes was on the menu when we first opened. Each became a part of what we do because Barbara responded to some demand or challenge from a customer.
Barbara is not a chocolate eater, so when we opened Barbara Jean’s we broke one of the restaurant industry’s cardinal rules—make sure you have at least one chocolate dessert on the menu.! We didn’t have any, and boy did we find out about that. A local St. Simons customer, Marie Sigman, was quick to announce one Sunday afternoon that if we didn’t get a chocolate dessert of some kind on the menu she wasn’t coming back! I damned near ran back to my wife and “suggested” she put something together. Barbara was sure Marie was only kidding, but I wasn’t, so I pestered her. One morning, without fanfare, she went back into the kitchen and less than an hour later announced that in about thirty minutes we would have a chocolate dessert to try. The truth is, I tried it and so did some of the other folks who were working that day. It was a killer, and now we had “The Chocolate Stuff.” I am almost positive though that Barbara has still never even tried it. And Marie, well hers is always free, and she really was just kidding!
Shortly after we opened we had Dru Doyal over to our house for dinner. Dru was the General Contractor who renovated the St. Simons building Barbara Jean’s is in today. The dinner entrée was Crab Cakes, the same ones Barbara had been making me for as long as I could remember. Dru was a little more than impressed and right then began a campaign to get them on our menu. Barbara resisted and so did I. Her reason was that she was not sure she could convert the recipe from a household quantity to commercial levels. Me, I thought we would be going down the wrong theme path for the restaurant. Yeah, we had some seafood but it wasn’t our focus. To this day I think Barbara was deferring to me because I doubt there is a recipe anywhere she can’t make better and in any quantity anyone wants. Dru never let up. I can’t think of a time when we met that he didn’t bring up the subject of crab cakes and our menu. “Hey, you’re on an island on the Atlantic coast, you need more seafood and the crab cakes are exactly what you need. Trust me.” We did. He was right, and Barbara, as she always does, expanded the recipe and, to use a very overworked cliché, the rest is history. The She Crab Soup had a similar genesis.
He came into the restaurant pretty regularly, sat at the bar and always ordered crab cakes, one way or another. One day Barbara was behind the bar and he told her something that got her competitive “food guru” juices going. “You know,” he said, “I come here for the crab cakes but I always go to ____ for the She Crab Soup.” As she told me the story, she added something that is as close to a bewildered tone as she has. “You know, I can make She Crab Soup!” No kidding, I thought, short of another chocolate dessert, there is nothing you can’t or won’t do with food if you want to. “Want” being the operative phrase. Man, another cliché! Anyway, this one pretty much followed everything I have ever seen her do in the kitchen. Jaw set, eyes gleaming, apron (if she’s in the restaurant) or “cooking clothes” (if she’s home) coming on, and the “I can make that” war drums thumping, and she heads to the kitchen with the kind of purpose that would wilt some of the Marines I served in combat with, me included. Tony Villalobos, who has been running our St Simons kitchen since we opened, and has been working for us since we were first in the restaurant business in Virginia, has seen it so many times he gets out of the way and asks Barbara what he can do to help. Then he waits. Same day, I think the same hour, or no more than two, with Tony laughing and I am once again being asked to “try this.” Yeah, it’s better than good.
You know it would be easy to suggest that Barbara’s life is defined by food, but it’s not. It has always been about pleasing people and doing what’s right. Her satisfaction comes from making people happy. I am an incredibly lucky man, and she has kept me happy beyond description for over forty years. I know our kids and grandkids feel the same. If you actually read this and come to one of our Barbara Jean’s Restaurants, tell her that I said I love her.
St. Simons Island, Georgia
August 25, 2005